Saturday 24 June 2017

The Daddy of all roles

A new fly-on-the-wall documentary looks closely at the impact of childbirth on expectant fathers, writes John Meagher

Bundle of joy: Barry Keohane and his partner Fran with their two children Ben and Asha. Photo: Patrick Hogan
Bundle of joy: Barry Keohane and his partner Fran with their two children Ben and Asha. Photo: Patrick Hogan
Family man: Duncan Menzies, with his wife Tara and baby Kate, said the birth of his daughter was the best moment of his life. Photo: Bernadette Hayes

Duncan Menzies thought he would be prepared for the moment his first child was born, but he wasn't. Not even close.

"You imagine what it will be like, but the reality is even more overwhelming. It's like nothing I'd ever experienced before. And I'd say all first-time fathers feel the same. Every emotion you can possibly think of seems to come at once."

The 32-year-old from Carrigtwohill, Co Cork, is one of several fathers to appear in a new RTE series, From Here to Maternity, which starts tonight. The six-part fly-on-the-wall documentary is set in the comparatively new Cork Univeristy Maternity Hospital (CUMH) and follows several couples before, during and after childbirth. Rarely has the moment of birth -- and its impact on fathers -- been captured as intimately on Irish television.

We follow Duncan and his wife Tara in the weeks leading up to the birth of Kate and share in their apprehension and excitement. "Tara has a heart condition -- she has a hole in her heart -- and that made the pregnancy that bit more emotional for us both," says Duncan, who works in the sales department of computer-giant Apple.

"Obviously, we were concerned about any potential risks. And when Kate was born, the first thing the doctors did was check her heart. It's perfect."

Duncan says he will never forget the labour. "It's a bit strange for a man because we are so used to being in control, but in that situation there's really nothing you can do. I couldn't take on Tara's physical pain which I wanted to do. It's this strange feeling of helplessness. When Kate was born there was a moment that she was handed over to Tara and I got completely emotional."

With hindsight, Duncan recognises another aspect that many fathers will relate to. "Time seems to change completely. It's like the brain slows down. I remember looking at the clock one moment and it was 12 and after what seemed like a few minutes it was 3am."

Barry Keohane (33) from Blackrock, Cork, is another father who features prominently in From Here to Maternity. His partner, Fran, gave birth to their second child, Asha, last year.

"I'd been through the experience of labour 10 years ago when Ben was born and while Asha's was a much quicker labour, your feelings remain the same," Barry, a chef based in Cork city says.

"Your entire focus is being there for your partner. No other thought comes into your head. I cried when Ben was born and I cried when Asha was born. It's a mixture of relief and joy and it truly is like nothing else in life. You're tearful and you don't even know why.

"There's nothing to prepare you for how you're going to feel. I suppose the best word to describe the experience is 'overwhelming'. When Ben and Asha were born I experienced a high, almost as if all these endorphins were coming through. As the father, you obviously don't feel any physical pain, but you're emotionally drained."

As men in their early 30s, Duncan Menzies and Barry Keohane are of a generation where it is considered normal, if not expected, for the father to be present during labour. It was all so different when they were born. Irish men, typically, were not bed-side. Many continued to work. Others went to the pub to say silent prayers.

"It was a very different time for childbirth too," Barry says. "It was more like an operation and maybe men would have been in the way in that sort of environment. But I couldn't not have been there. There was never a possibility that I would be somewhere else."

His words are echoed by Duncan. "I think it's simply accepted now that the father is going to be at the hospital for the whole time. I booked three weeks off work months before knowing I wanted to be there for the whole thing. They are moments I will never forget, because that instant when Kate was born was the best moment of my life. It's an extraordinary feeling"

For filmmaker Edel O'Brien, the moment that Barry describes is the one she was especially keen to capture. And the access she enjoyed at CUMH last year makes for compelling viewing, especially as the participants seem utterly oblivious to her handheld camera.

"I wanted to be there at that life-changing moment when a baby comes into the world and you see the parents' joy. It's an extraordinary experience, especially for first-time parents.

"And I really wanted to show what it's like for the father because they can often feel sidelined during the labour. They can feel a bit shut out of what is happening, although I think modern-day maternity hospitals -- especially CUMH -- really make an effort in making men feel part of everything.

"Definitely, in the past, there was a sense that men were pushed out of the equation a bit, and their emotions and needs weren't always taken into account. But I got a real sense when filming that the mothers were really glad of the support they got from the fathers -- that was palpable."

A mother-of-two, she knows at first hand the quotidian wonder of childbirth and has been drawn to the subject several times in her career, not least in her documentary about the IVF phenomenon, Making Babies.

"Maternity hospitals are very vivid, lively, interesting places that are very different to other hospitals. There's such a sense of hope in maternity wards. Lives are changing all the time and midwives -- these amazing people -- are at the centre of it all."

From Here to Maternity starts on RTE One at 8.30pm tonight.

Irish Independent

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